On The Menu: Pink Slime And The Need For Balance
April 3, 2012

On The Menu: Pink Slime And The Need For Balance

Michael Harper for RedOrbit.com

In 1904, journalist Upton Sinclair went undercover at a Chicago meat packing plant to investigate and research the lives of immigrant laborers. He worked for 7 weeks incognito in the Chicago stockyards, gathering information about what he saw. The end result was less of a story about immigrant workers and more of a shocking realization about the state of America´s meat packing industries and the working conditions therein. The Jungle, released in 1906, shocked an entire nation, and soon calls went up to the White house to address the issues raised in Sinclair´s tell-all novel. The Federal Meat Inspection Act was quickly passed, followed by the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which laid the foundation for what would eventually become the Food and Drug Administration in 1930.

How interesting, then, as similar issues have arisen more than a century later concerning the state of our nation´s food industry and a federal agency set in place in order to protect us.

Jamie Oliver, a modern day Sinclair, has been raising awareness about a now-common food processing practice that gets the nod of approval from the FDA. With help from a large television audience and social media, Oliver has our nation outraged over the use of pink slime in our ground beef, and as these companies struggle to deal with the hefty amounts of bad press they´ve been receiving, news has surfaced of sizable donations made by these beef companies to political parties, presumably for their protection.

The phrase “You never want to know how the sausage is made” has never rung more true than it does right now. However, as an ever growing nation (both in population and girth) demands more from our food industry, are we allowed to get upset when federal agencies begin to use methods such as these to bring fast and cheap meat to our tables?

So what is Pink Slime and how is it made?

Michael Moss, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, investigated this story in 2009. He described the process to NPR this way: “[Trimmings are] taken from the outermost part, and they happen to be the fattiest part of the cow,” says Moss. “So they´re put into a centrifuge which spits out the protein parts of the material.”

The resulting mixture may cause most stomachs to turn, but those in the meat industry find it incredibly appetizing, especially where costs are concerned. Made from parts the cow processors would have normally thrown away, “Lean, Beef Trimmings” as the industry calls it, are a cheap, cost effective way to thin out the ground beef and get more bang for their buck. But as these ground-up parts originated as the outside of the cow that may have come in contact with fecal matter and other unsavory elements, the meat industry must find a way to kill possible strains of the bacteria e.coli. To do this, they mix the ground mixture with food-grade gaseous ammonia to raise the alkalinity to a level e.coli cannot handle. The USDA and FDA deem this method as effective and say the resulting mixture is safe to eat. This chemical addition is what makes parents and consumers most sick to their stomachs; For them, the thought of digesting such a chemical, even if it is food-grade, is too much to bare.

The beef industry is facing some of the most intense scrutiny ever as the public media continues to hit home with criticisms and questions about their motives. All this bad publicity has caused other food providers, including public schools, to think twice about where they get their meat. In response to the public´s outcry, fast food chains like Burger King, McDonalds, and Taco Bell have stopped buying meat containing the beef trimmings. These companies made up a sizable portion of these processor´s business. Without it, bleak times lie ahead.

AFA Foods, for instance, is one of the nation´s largest producers of the Lean Beef filler. On Monday, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy amidst negative attention from the media and poor sales forecasting, Producing more than 500 million pounds of ground beef product a year, the collapse of AFA is likely to cause other producers to take notice.

Speaking with Bloomberg, a spokesperson for AFA said it “continues discussions with potential buyers to secure the highest and best outcome for its business.”

Other large beef producers, such as Tyson and Cargill are having the same difficulty selling their products and high-dollar customers falling by the wayside, Should these conditions remain, it isn´t likely businesses like AFA will be able to stay afloat much longer.

It isn´t hard to see why the public is up in arms about this relatively new controversy. Even before knowing exactly what it is, an uninitiated person will be automatically sickened by the very name of it: Pink Slime. The meat industry argues the name is nothing more than hyperbole, incorrectly describing the meat filler as used to provide our nation with cheap meat.

The phrase “Pink Slime” was originally coined in 2002 by a former USDA microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein in an email to coworkers describing the stuff being extruded from machines at a Beef Products, Incorporated (BPI) plant. Since then, the term has been used tirelessly by journalists and bloggers alike, as well as the millions of people who have taken to social media to call for the government to remove the stuff from school lunches and call fast food restaurants to remove it from their menus. Zirnstein was one of the first who opposed the use of Pink Slime as a meat filler and said it is ““¦just not as wholesome and nutritious as fresh ground beef.”

J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute (AMI) would like to see the discussion change from what the filler is called and how it is made to how the filler affects meat production and cost of food. To that end, Boyle and the AMI released a press statement telling people to refrain from calling the meat filler Pink Slime.

Referring to it instead as “Boneless, Lean Beef Trimmings," Boyle insists it is a “safe, wholesome and nutritious” form of beef. Boyle says each cut of meat used in the ground beef filler is not only USDA approved, but wholesome as well, containing both fat and lean meat. As for the use of ammonium hydroxide gas, Boyle explains ““¦it is all done under the watchful eye of USDA inspectors and according to strict federal rules.” Lean Beef Trimmings are not meant to be consumed by themself. The trimmings are sold as a “filler” and are used to add a lean meat stock to existing ground beef and never amounts for more than 10-15% of a ground beef product. Boyle insists the product is edible, saying it is “impossible” to make edible products out of inedible stock. “In reality, the BLBT production process simply removes fat and makes the remaining beef more lean and suited to a variety of beef products that satisfy consumers´ desire for leaner foods.”

As much of the nation is speaking out against the beef industry and their “Lean, Beef Trimmings”, some beef-backed politicians are rushing to their aid. Like AHA, BPI is one of the nation´s largest beef producers. When the USDA announced schools will be able to opt-out of receiving meat with all the trimmings next fall, BPI expected to feel the pinch. In response, they have already suspended operations in all but one of their plants, affecting more than 200 employees at each plant. While these plants are shut down, BPI plans to engage in damage control and hopes to restore business back to a level before the social media campaign. Part of their attempts to appeal to the public include a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal defending their products.

Iowa governor Terry Branstad doesn´t want to see jobs lost in his state where BPI is based. In a letter sent out last Friday, Branstad urged Iowa superintendents to continue buying beef containing the trimmings. The nation´s public school systems are contracted through the USDA to buy over 111.5 million pounds of lean beef trimming beef next year. Such a contract could have great affects on the jobs of over 650 people.

Branstad´s involvement is cause for concern for those who oppose the beef trimmings, however. Records reveal sizable donations to political office on behalf of the meat industry and AFA and BPI in particular. Branstad alone received over $150,000 during his last campaign year from owners of BPI, Eldon and Regina Roth. Other political figures, most often Republicans, were also the beneficiaries of agricultural generosity led by the AMI. These politicians, including Branstad stand by their Iowan constituents, calling the recent controversy a “smear campaign”. Branstad also stands behind the judgment of the USDA and FDA and believes if they say the beef trimmings are safe, then they must be safe. To their credit, there have been no documented cases of illness traced back to this product.

Many concerned citizens want to know why such a product has been allowed to be created and sold as a tangible food product to consumers and children alike.

Part of the blame can rest on the public´s shoulders. Companies thrive when they are able to source, produce and serve a product the public is willing to buy. On the whole, the nation has been up to this point largely unaware of what was in their meat and how it was produced. Through collective purchasing decisions and trends, the public made it clear they wanted cheaper and leaner beef. As these beef companies now face scrutiny, it appears they did what they could to deliver this kind of meat with whatever tactics they could, lining the pockets of politicians in order to have their special interests heard in Washington.

As Upton Sinclair´s novel brought about sweeping change to the meat packing industry as well as national industry on the whole, Jamie Oliver´s “Food Revolution” is not only bringing about awareness to the way our nation´s food is prepared, it is also urging citizens to take control of the way their food is produced. What is left to be seen, however, is if the public really wants to vote with their dollars in order for better food options. Good food costs good money and in a society that favors and even admonishes large portions at a small price, there may not be much long-term traction to the Anti-Pink Slime movement. The beef industry can only wait and see how the public will react and hope to be able to deliver once again.